Why We Buy What We Do

How our brains get tricked into spending money

Soup cans that say "sale price"
Justin Fantl

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“I don’t like to shop, but I do like to buy,” Frances Taylor wrote in The Atlantic in 1931. In an essay called “Who Wants My Money?,” Taylor laments how inconvenient the process of shopping is. “I am a business woman working on commission, and I make money which I like to spend,” she writes, but going to stores is “a time-wasting and nerve-racking performance.”

What follows is an entertaining account of Taylor’s mission to buy a list of items in two hours. After getting lost in a department store, she finally finds one thing on her list: a pair of pajamas. But they’re striped (“I wanted plain ones”) and have no pockets (“I adore pockets”). Later, looking for a bedside lamp, she’s told that they “only have one … it is pink and it is broken.” “I too am pink and broken,” Taylor continues, “but I manage to reach another store.”

Ninety-one years later, the internet and the algorithms that have grown with it make shopping easier than ever—but do we actually want all of these things we’re clicking on? The easier shopping gets, the more mindless buying becomes.

Today’s reading list explores the science behind how we buy things. The findings are both fascinating and a little disturbing, but you can at least use this knowledge as a shield the next time you hear the siren call of good marketing.

On Shopping

Marco Goran

Why You Bought That Ugly Sweater

By Eleanor Smith

The scientific tricks stores use to part you and your money

Soup cans that say "sale price"
Justin Fantl

How Online Shopping Makes Suckers of Us All

By Jerry Useem

Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies.

fishing lure made from packaging with two double hooks, dangling from string
Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin

The Package Is the Message

By Amanda Mull

Americans can’t resist the lure of a well-designed container.

Still Curious?

Other Diversions


I’ll leave you with one of the most surprising findings in Eleanor Smith’s story about the science behind buying that ugly sweater: Research has shown that “consumers prefer spending money in stores with cool, blue-toned interiors over stores with warmer, orange-toned interiors, where they tend to be less enthusiastic and balk at high prices.”

— Isabel